Stop Press: FLUSTER magazine

Tobias Feltus was born in the USA of two figurative painters, Lani Irwin and Alan Feltus, he grew up in Assisi (Italy), in a countryside bubble, and have been living in Edinburgh (UK) for the past 12 years.
He likes to cook and eat good food, drink good wine, and smoke fine tobacco. He obsess over cameras, seek the perfect lens, feel for the best squeeze, and attempt to be (intellectually) rich.

What is photography for you?

An infatuation. Not in that I take snapshots, but that most things in life are compared and reflected to and in my photography. As my parents are painters, and I grew up surrounded by other painters, I have often debated photography’s merit in juxtaposition to painting and fine-art. Painting is inherently abstract, but can be honed to a representational canon, whereas photography is inherently and mechanically a direct representation of a reality, and thus I find its abstraction far more interesting.

Photography is a tool with which to create an image, a process that involves a manipulated reality traveling through a choice of glass and mechanical means, to a chemical reaction. I see this as a rather pure process, and am uncomfortable with upsetting this very purity. For years I stuck to Cartier-Bresson’s ethic of showing the whole frame without cropping, and I do this as often as I can, though sometimes I will be distracted by some other aspect in an image and have to resort to a crop. Photography is a means to challenge myself, to push myself into places where I am uncomfortable. To show aspects of my body that I cannot by other means. And also its intricate technicalities are a perpetual challenge, which keep me on my toes.

Which aspects of your pictures make them stand out as yours, what is your signature?

I think that which both limits and defines my style is my mental database of aesthetics. Having grown up surrounded by centuries worth of Italian painting, and books of Flemish painters as well as more recent masters like Balthus and Lempicka, my sense of composition and colour is inherent. My bookshelf shows my interest and admiration of many photographers whom I am unable to emulate: Bourdin, Saudek, Witkin, Araki, Terry Richardson, Moon, Lachappelle… Somehow these serve as a spark to push me forward, however that which results is arguably a failure, and yet always mine. Amusingly, to me, one of my defining qualities in today’s climate is my faithful dedication to analogue, or photochemical, processes. For some reason it has become a standard that photographers work with the latest equipment, after a good century of professionals and artists using whichever means suited them best. So I still do use the means that suits me best; the means that gives me the quality I am after. And this does mean that for some things I need a specific lens and a specific format, and cannot be limited to a half-frame sensor and an overly-corrected plastic-barrelled lens with a small aperture that has a ‘professional’ price tag.

How would you define your style?

In a way I feel that the best way to define my style is to roughly reference what Viviana Siviero wrote in an article in EspoArte back in 2005 (paraphrased & translated): by applying the infinite possibilities available to him and resigning himself to the outlines of a blank canvas, he coined a sort of post-divisionism, implemented with a contemporary medium by using the inherent grain of film.

How do you approach someone for a photograph? How do you set up your work? Do you always ask?

I rarely do. Almost all of my work is a self portrait, or a portrait of someone else who is close to me in life. My family. My girlfriend. Occasionally a friend. But very seldom do I reach out and approach someone with whom I am not already in close confidence.

Tell us a story about one of the people you have photographed that made you want to take their picture.

I met Rebekka in 2001 when she was maybe just 20 and was a dancer in a strip-bar. It was an odd period, as I had befriended her flatmate, April, who was an older dancer. It was an outlet to a part of society I had never been in contact with before. So a decade passed, and we had lost touch, and then she appeared on Facebook commenting on a mutual friend’s post. I was surprised to see that she had moved to London and was working as a Dominatrix, and in talking found that she periodically came up to Edinburgh, so I suggested we work together some time. Since all of her work related pictures were stereotypically fetish orientated, and hence harsh and shiny, I thought it would be interesting to make her look soft and lost in a large space. The shoot was comfortable, as she was more dressed than I, despite my clothes and her nudity. It is fascinating how some individuals can appear this way. And yet I did succeed in representing her in an innocent manner.

Tell us a story about one of your pictures? What is your favourite shot and why?

How can one have a favourite of one’s own work? I find it terribly difficult to distance the memories and smells associated with a person or a shoot from their aesthetic. So what shall I write about? My first self-portrait? OK. It was probably 1998 and I had bought an old, circa 1880s, 5×7” wooden camera. It came with no shutter and a plate back. I had modified the back building a spring mechanism, and added a single speed pneumatic shutter to the lens it came with, which was a Poloxer, apparently some kind of Tessar-type eastern-block lens. I set up in my mum’s studio in the evening, and since my air line was rather short, the solution to taking a picture of myself was to shoot a mirror with the camera in front of me. I did not have one mirror large enough, so I put one on a chair, and another at the foot of the chair. Then I put another beside me, and one near my head. My artificial lighting at the time was a hand full of clip-on lamps with tungsten bulbs, so I set them all up. My exposure was something shocking like 10”, as I was using FP4 and the lens was not bright. It seemed logical to put a seagull skull in my mouth. I exposed one frame, and turned the darkslide around. No one had come to bother me, so I nervously (as I was very prudish at the time) took my clothes off, and decided to put a boar skull in front of my modesty (a skull which I had found in a river as a child). I held the bulb and squeezed whilst I counted off the seconds. I got away with it, and my nudity was only apparent by the mirror near my chair.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to face to get a great picture?

Living within myself. I tend to be very self-critical, and fail to validate my work on my own, on any grounds other than technical achievement. Yes, sometimes working with other people can be hard, including my brother Joseph with whom I work a lot. And sometimes I push myself into odd scenarios or uncomfortable situations. But regardless of this, most often it is the most challenging situations that feel the most rewarding afterwards.
“Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings, Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet.

When did you start taking pictures?

When I was 10 or 11 my dad came back from a visit with his old friend Emmet Gowin with a box of Kodalith, a pinhole camera made from a 35mm film canister, and a Pentax ME Super, which sparked the beginning of the disease. Despite my having a Masters degree in design, I sit surrounded by cameras of various formats and age.

What’s the message of your photos, what do you want to communicate or accomplish through your work?

I don’t wish to impose any meaning nor interpretation of my own upon a viewer. If someone is moved, then I have accomplished something. I do not set out with a moral or a meaning to convey, but rather, occasionally, an emotion or a story which, occasionally, becomes the title, but little more.
“Like all of my canvases, these are works of fictive imagination rather than records of perceived reality. They do not represent any “true” thing — if they are any good, they are true things — nor do they teach any lesson, argue any point of view, or tell any linear story; they are meant to be fiction, not to illustrate it.” – James McGarrell, in an exhibition catalogue.
The only ethical tool that I use within my work to do this is that technical honesty which I mentioned above. I do not have any secrets within my technique, which I emphasise with my occasional “making of” video or blog.

What’s the question you wish I had asked? …and what is the answer?

What next? I am not sure. The past year and a half has been testing on many levels. I feel that I have reached the age of 32 without having an adult perspective on life, nor much of a career. I know that I have a fat CV when it comes to exhibitions and film festivals, but I forget this five minutes after revising it. I always have ten thousand projects on the go, several cameras dismantled and mid-renovation (today I started stripping 4×5 Ensign Reflex, as I wish to work with such a machine, but cannot afford a working example). I do intend to attempt to make some income from modifying and renovating Graflex cameras, and I am also involved in the development of new large-format instant negative film (like the old Polaroid Type 55). And whilst tinkering with these projects I am slowly making it through my fridge of film. I recently started collaborating with my girlfriend, whose background is much more literary than mine and I can see that there are a lot of interesting images to come from this, and possibly our differences will also unshackle me from one or more of my innate restraints. Maybe I shall start producing some work that is completely unlike anything I have done to date. And this prospect is very exciting indeed.

Tobias Feltus: